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06/21/2013

R.I.P. gin?!?

Overdrive James Dean
Plant scientists say that juniper, the main ingredient in gin, is "under attack." Summer cocktails are therefore also under attack, which is totally unacceptable. (Photo by Connie Tsang)

 

Maybe you're the Gimlet type. Maybe you fancy yourself a bit of a dandy, and the Aviation is your tipple of choice. Let us not forget a stalwart so familiar it is hailed only by its initials, the G&T

If you drink, and you like summer, and you breathe oxygen, you're probably a fan of gin. And in that case, you should stock up -- because plant scientists say that juniper, the berry that gives gin its distinctive flavour, is "under attack."

"Juniper is in serious trouble," Plantlife Scotland has declared. The bushes are being threatened by a fungal disease, Phytophthora austrocedrae, that is often fatal to the plants it infects. 

Plantlife also says that because the Juniper stocks are often more than 100 years old, and rabbit and vole populations are booming, the plant is disappearing.

Juniper has reportedly disappeared from over a third of places in Britain where it once grew. The plant grows widely across the Northern Hemisphere, but most of the gin we drink comes from the U.K., where it is protected by various legal definitions. (Canada has a few small-batch gin producers, and production is growing in the U.S., but suffice to say that if juniper ran out in the British Isles, North American gin production would not nearly slake the world's thirst.)

Plantlife Scotland, Forestry Commission Scotland and Scottish National Heritage have teamed up to ask residents to conduct a survey -- every time they see a juniper bush, they are to report it, and if they see a plant possibly infected by Phytophthora austrocedrae, they are to report that too.

Juniper, aside from being gin's main ingredient, is also one of the British Isles' three native conifers.

All gins, which claim a neutral grain spirit as their base, include juniper. But they also mix other botanicals in like cardamom, coriandor, lemon peel, angelica, cassia, and orris root. Each gin company closely guards its recipe and combination of flavourings. 

Now considered a uniquely British spirit, English soldiers reportedly first encountered a spirit called Genever when fighting the Dutch in the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648). (Genever is still a popular spirit in the Netherlands.)

British soldiers brought it back home, where gin became popular and also incredibly cheap, leading to the 18th century "Gin Craze" and subsequent rise in alcholism. Eventually production was checked and gin became a spirit for middle classes, but not before the alcohol became known as "mother's ruin."

Now, it seems, the only ruination may be summer cocktails.

The Telegraph has a pithy editorial on the subject, which ends like this:

"Today, with an image of sundowners in an Empire we never knew, or of warm comfort on winter gallops when infused with jewel-bright sloes, gin is on visiting terms everywhere. While ash and oak and chestnut wither and die, the juniper must be saved at all costs."

Hear hear. Raise a glass to those plant scientists.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Her gin of choice is Plymouth. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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